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Eunice Fried's USA: From Sea To Shining Sea

The beginning was not auspicious. The sky was leaden. My mother cried. And no one wished us a good journey, a happy journey. They looked at our old gray car with its worn tires and one of its two rusting doors hanging on by a single hinge, loaded down with everything in the world we owned, and all they could say was, have a safe trip. I had never been further west than Washington D.C. Now it would be Connecticut to California, to undergraduate school for me, graduate school for my husband and a thousand adventures on the way.

We drove south through Kentucky and Tennessee, through Arkansas to Texas, across New Mexico and Arizona and up the coast of California to Palo Alto and Stanford University. And everything was new. The mountains were higher, the trees were taller. The sky was wider. The stars were brighter. There were great deserts and endless space. And the New England of my birth and childhood became a gentle, far away land.

Come the end of the school year, we drove back east across Nevada and Utah and Colorado, through the Midwest where whole states seem to consist of pastures and cornfields. Three months later, we returned to California skimming the country's northern border.

And then it became a way of life. Every year, twice a year, we drove across country, each time by a different route, each route a new experience. The car that lost its reverse gear. The car that broke down in the middle of the desert. The chilly night we slept wrapped in blankets in the only place we could find, an old hunting cabin in the woods of Idaho. The fear that washed over me as we stood in the Petrified Forest at dusk. The awe that filled me as I gazed down into the Grand Canyon. The torrential rain storm that landed us in a gully in Arizona. Descending into the damp cool of Carlsbad Caverns from the blast heat of a New Mexico summer day. Dipping a toe in Salt Lake on a cold late autumn day. Being stopped by a bear in Yellowstone National Park. Attending Christmas Eve service on an Indian reservation. Following the forest ranger's hand as he pointed toward the presidents on Mount Rushmore and seeing only an impenetrable wall of fog. Arriving minutes too late to see Old Faithful. Driving past a farm house in the dark where we could see the family eating dinner and half wishing I had a home. And then, with the new day, looking for the new adventure.

We drove and drove. We touched every state but hardly any cities. We drove on red highways and blue highways and lost our way at least three times a day. We met people who helped us, directed us, advised us, laughed with us and at us and never once did anything to harm us. Their accents and inflections were different from ours, different from each other's; but for kindness and humor and good sense, they were all one. We ate pick-up picnics and at local coffee shops and diners and on Indian reservations. We slept in inexpensive motels and cheap roadside cabins. But that was long ago. Other experiences would come later and separately.

There were, in all, ten cross-country drives before that part of life ended. In the years since, I have traveled well beyond the States. I've been to great cities, eaten in fine restaurants, slept in grand hotels, driven in luxurious cars. And yet, often, I find myself looking back on those halcyon days that seem so simple and full of wonder when everything was new. I think of this country's variety and contrasts and distinctiveness, of its being both the strong father and the warm earth mother. And I remember vividly the wonder of seeing it all for the first time. I cannot recapture those youthful days. I wouldn't try. But I would like to drive from coast to coast one more time, feeling that sense of freedom, making no reservations, cutting to a country road on a whim, stopping each day when it feels time to stop, experiencing once more the incredible varieties of otherness that create our togetherness, the wonderful anomaly that is America. This time, though, I'd like to do it in a sound, comfortable car, one with a strong reverse gear.


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